A repugnant strike in Chicago

Posted: September 12, 2012

By Charles Lane

Keep the following numbers in mind for the next time a public-sector union official starts lecturing you about social justice.

In Chicago, 85 percent of the roughly 400,000 public school students are African American or Latino. A similar share lives at or near the poverty line: about $27,000 for a family of three.

The average Chicago public-school teacher earned almost triple that: $76,000 a year, according to the school district. In contract negotiations this year, the Chicago Public Schools offered an average raise of 16 percent over four years.

The Chicago Teachers Union rejected the offer and went on strike Monday, sowing chaos among children and parents.

No one can say how long this walkout will last, but even if it ends tomorrow, it has already harmed poor, minority children, upon whose education the future of Chicago, and the country, depends.

I can't describe the moral repugnance of this strike by aggrieved middle-class "professionals" against the aspiring poor. Well, I could describe it, but only by plagiarizing Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's unprintable vocabulary. So let's just say it illustrates dramatically the contradictions between public-sector unionism and the efficient delivery of vital public services.

It also heightens the contradiction between the Democratic Party's need to show it can deliver sustainable good government and its dependence on public-sector unions for political support.

Common sense says there should be some link between compensation and job performance. But the very idea tends to make teachers unions recoil like Dracula confronted with a garlic clove. And so Chicago teachers are picketing schools where only 60 percent of the students graduate and less than 8 percent of 11th graders met all the college-readiness benchmarks on state tests last year.

To his credit, Emanuel shook things up when he took office last year. He rescinded an unaffordable raise and called for a 90-minute extension of the school day, which was one of the nation's shortest. That infuriated the union, but a truce was reached when Emanuel agreed to rehire laid-off teachers to handle the extra work.

But bad blood remains, and beyond prosaic issues of pay and benefits lurks the all-important question of linking teacher job security to student test scores. Union president Karen Lewis warns that "this is no way to measure the effectiveness of an educator," and she griped in a statement about the impact "poverty, exposure to violence, homelessness, hunger, and other social issues beyond our control" can have on student performance.

I believe this is what a certain former president meant by "the soft bigotry of low expectations."

To some extent, we are witnessing a quintessentially Chicago fight over "clout": Lewis is determined to show Emanuel who runs the Windy City, and vice versa.

She has chosen a strategically advantageous moment to make her stand. Emanuel's time and attention are not fully engaged, since he has just agreed to hit up wealthy donors for the largest pro-Obama super-PAC. Meanwhile, the Obama campaign and the entire Democratic effort are counting on teachers' unions.

The outcome matters a lot. If Emanuel can open a pay-for-performance beachhead in the nation's third-largest school district, it would send a message across the country. If not, the setback would reverberate well beyond Chicago, too.

It should be lesson enough that about 400,000 mostly poor schoolchildren, their parents, and the voters of Chicago are regularly held hostage to closed-door bargaining between politicians and union chieftains.

Some wonder why Emanuel doesn't just give the teachers half a loaf so the kids can go back to class. The real question is how things got to the point where the mayor isn't legally free to drop one of his F-bombs on the Chicago Teachers Union and hang out a "help wanted" sign, with pay, benefits, and work rules to be set by elected officials, in accordance with the public interest.


Charles Lane is an editorial writer for the Washington Post.

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